The team had hoped to construct the container grotto during the 2021–22 Antarctic summer, with the first ice cores delivered the following field season. The COVID-19 pandemic will likely delay that by a year or two, though. Logistics is another big challenge to getting the vault built: Although polar research agencies routinely ship supplies and equipment across the world, and then on tractor caravans across the ice to the Concordia base, space is limited and in much demand.
Not everyone thinks that cores need to go all the way to Antarctica. “I am not convinced that storing ice cores in Antarctica from these mountain tops is practical,” Lonnie Thompson, a glaciologist at the Ohio State University who pioneered studies of ice cores from glaciers outside of the polar regions, says. (His team’s ice cores are stored in freezers including at Ohio State, which have backup generators in case the power goes out.)
Flying scientists back and forth to Antarctica when they want to study samples isn’t very cost-effective, Thompson says. And the ongoing pandemic “brings home the simple fact to all of us as to just how far away Antarctica really is, and no one has any guarantee of what the world will look like 100 years from now.”
Bess Koffman, a geologist at Colby College in Maine, also expresses doubts. “I’d be curious to know the long-term plan to make sure that someone goes back in 20 years, or further into the future, and maintains it,” she says. “Who’s going to be bulldozing the snow so you can get down to the shipping containers?”
Such questions highlight the challenge of putting a project intended to run for centuries into one of the most remote and international places in the world. In Norway, scientists have socked away agricultural seeds in a vault buried in the permafrost in Svalbard—but the Norwegian government owns and manages that project. The lack of national sovereignty in Antarctica makes Ice Memory more complicated.
Chappellaz notes that the project is endorsed by UNESCO, and that the Concordia base is subject to rules under the international Antarctic Treaty system. These sorts of international governing bodies should be able to oversee a long-term project like Ice Memory, he says.
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At present, the project is an effort of a patchwork of private funders and national research organizations, managed by an international steering committee and assisted by the Université Grenoble Alpes Foundation. While national research institutes provide people and resources, most financial support for drilling expeditions and analyses comes from companies and foundations that donate or pay for sponsorship. French, Italian, and Swiss institutions are working to create a foundation that could raise more money from private donors.
With every passing year, the task of saving the memory of the ice gets harder. Already, meltwater on some glaciers is finding its way from the surface into deeper ice, potentially wrecking the useful signal. Ice cores drilled from the Belukha glacier in 2001 and 2003 showed layers where ice had melted and refrozen in the upper part of the glacier, related to a sharp increase in summer temperatures. And temperatures some 50 meters inside the Col du Dôme glacier on Mont Blanc rose by 1.5 degrees Celsius from 1994 to 2017, scientists reported in March in Cryosphere.